Government & Politics

Europeans Favor Fairness in Allocating Asylum Seekers

Stanford scholars surveyed citizens of 15 European countries and found that they support allocating asylum seekers proportional to each country’s capacity.

July 03, 2017

| by Milenko Martinovich


One Stanford study shows Europeans support a proportional allocation of refugees.

Refugees and migrants give information to a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) staff (C), during a pre-registration process that gives them access to the asylum procedure, at the premises of the disused Hellenikon airport, in Athens, Greece. | Reuters/Alkis Konstantinidis

Europe has experienced a deluge of immigrants since 2015 when more than 1.3 million people applied for asylum. The numbers have only increased, and European leaders are searching for answers to solve this growing crisis.

In research appearing this week in Nature Human Behaviour, Kirk Bansak, Jens Hainmueller, and Dominik Hangartner of Stanford’s Immigration Policy Lab asked 18,000 European citizens their opinions on the issue. Their findings revealed that Europeans favored an allocation system proportional to each country’s capacity — even when it meant the number of asylum seekers in their respective country would increase.

The Stanford News Service spoke to Bansak, Hainmueller, and Hangartner about their research.

Why is the current European asylum system unsustainable?

Europe’s asylum system wasn’t built to handle the immense volume of migrant flows we have seen under the current refugee crisis. The sustainability of the system is increasingly being challenged as entrenched conflicts across Africa and the Middle East continue to send people fleeing toward Europe.

Under the current system’s regulations, the EU member state where an asylum seeker first arrives is responsible for that asylum seeker’s application. Many have argued that this status quo is not only administratively impractical, but also inherently unfair given that most asylum seekers enter Europe’s southern and eastern border countries. The crisis has increasingly threatened the social cohesion of many countries and has called into doubt the ability of European governments to come together and find a cooperative solution that provides effective humanitarian protection for refugees.

Your research mentions the “classic problem of international commitment and cooperation.” What are the factors or motivations that keep EU countries from solving this crisis together?

At its core, the problem is the lack of a fair responsibility-sharing mechanism involving all countries that belong to the European asylum system. Every country has incentives to take in as few asylum seekers as possible. However, the resulting lack of coordination has created chaos and conflict across Europe and bears huge costs for all parties involved. This includes the asylum seekers who are waiting in limbo in temporary refugee camps in coastal countries or overcrowded facilities in the few welcoming countries. This also includes the receiving countries, which are having increasing difficulty handling their unequal share of the responsibility, and even the free-riding countries, some of which have temporarily reinstated costly border controls within Europe.

Despite these costs, overcoming the problem is difficult because it requires policymakers to find a cooperative solution that is acceptable to not only all other countries, but also a majority of their own domestic constituents. In light of the general public’s desire to decrease the inflow of asylum seekers across all European countries, reaching such a cooperative solution seems like a daunting task. While EU leaders hammer out reforms, however, they seldom hear the voices of ordinary Europeans debating the issue in pubs and cafes. In fact, prior to our study, we are not aware of any systematic data on what type of asylum regime Europeans want.


Voters are willing to support an increase in the number of asylum seekers to their own country provided that all countries in the system shoulder a fair share of the responsibility.

What were your study’s major findings?

We conducted an unprecedented survey of 18,000 Europeans in 15 countries to find out what kind of asylum system Europeans want and the answer was clear: Europeans overwhelmingly reject the current asylum regulations and would strongly prefer a system that allocated asylum seekers in proportion to each country’s capacity – even if that system brought larger numbers into their own country.

The results suggest that the principle of proportional equality is deeply engrained in the public’s understanding of fairness in the world and can trump more selfish considerations. In other words, voters are willing to support an increase in the number of asylum seekers to their own country provided that all countries in the system shoulder a fair share of the responsibility. This preference was remarkably consistent across the surveyed countries, including major EU powers and new members, border and interior countries, and ones with few and many asylum seekers. The preference prevailed, too, among respondents on the left, right and center of the political spectrum.

Were you surprised by any of your findings?

Yes, we were surprised by the strength of the fairness considerations. European leaders often worry that any increase in asylum seekers will risk public backlash and a loss of political position. But these results point to a consensus broad and strong enough to empower policymakers to move confidently toward reforming the asylum system from its current “country of first entry” rule toward proportional allocation.

Beyond the refugee crisis, this shows that voters care about how international institutions are designed, not just about the results they deliver for individual countries. The power of the proportional equality norm suggests that it might enable coordination in other areas where the international provision of public goods is controversial, such as climate change mitigation, environmental protection and financial bailouts.

What signal does this send to the leaders of EU countries?

The strong public support for proportional allocation uncovered by this study does not imply that reforming the asylum system will be frictionless, but the extensiveness of the support for proportional allocation over the current regulations across Europe suggests that a reform would be broadly agreeable to the public, which is critical in giving policymakers latitude to take action. At the very least, policymakers should be emboldened by this evidence, which points to a viable pan-European consensus to move toward a fairer responsibility-sharing mechanism that allocates asylum seekers in proportion to the countries’ capacities.

Kirk Bansak is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Political Science. Jens Hainmueller is the faculty co-director of the Immigration Policy Lab, and a professor of political science, and a professor of political economy by courtesy at Stanford Graduate School of Business. Dominik Hangartner is the faculty co-director of the Immigration Policy Lab, Zurich Branch, and an associate professor at the London School of Economics. This work was supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

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